Williams manages to smile as she feels burden lightening

Wimbledon 2003: Former world No 1 sees hope of emerging from year of domination by sister Serena after slick straight-sets victory

It was a potentially nasty spill, the feet giving way before a heavy tumble to the Centre Court grass. The crowd let out a collective gasp. But the ball boy got back up to show he'd fight another day.

Katarina Srebotnik, up against Venus Williams in the All England Club's main arena, was not so lucky. Metaphorically floored when her serve was first broken in the seventh game of the opening set, the 22-year-old Slovenian then sustained too many blows to remain competitive. Williams sealed her straight-sets win, 6-4, 6-1, let slip a smile for the first time in the 61-minute duration of the match and marched into the third round.

Williams has slipped from No 1 in the world 12 months ago to No 4, and has certainly spent the entire year in the substantial shadow of her sister, Serena, but the gap in ability between her and every player below her in the rankings remains huge.

Yesterday's victory turned on a spectacular and punishing backhand cross-court missile that broke Srebotnik's serve at 3-3 in the first set. "That was just a wonderful shot," Williams said afterwards. "I was just trying to run for every ball and go for everything. I just tried to do what it took. That was real, real fun."

Not for Srebotnik. She held her serve only twice after that and found Williams' power simply unmanageable. Three points that helped the latter secure a break of serve in the fifth game of the second set typified the afternoon. The first was a thundering double-handed backhand drive which came from nothing. The second was a pinpoint forehand to the line, hit with such power that it elicited "Ooohs" from the crowd.

The third came after Srebotnik had volleyed to Williams' feet. Venus not only dug the ball out but flipped it forcefully to send it hurtling back across the net. Another gasp from the crowd.

Srebotnik tried to match fire with fire a few minutes later, successfully bludgeoning a return on Williams' next service game. It was just a case of shadow boxing, though. She was on her way home within minutes.

"Fitness has changed a lot," Williams said afterwards, explaining how her and Serena's dominance of the women's game has forced the rest of the tour to try and step up. "I was 16, came out hitting these 116mph serves, running and jumping like no tomorrow, then everyone started to realise they had to up the serve and pace.

"Then Serena burst on the scene and did just unbelievable things. I'm glad that I was able to be a leader in fitness. I'm glad that other people have been able to take it to another level. And I'll have to keep taking it to another level to compete."

The abyss that exists between the top four in the world - Serena, Kim Clijsters, Justine Henin and Venus - and the rest was acknowledged yesterday by Lindsay Davenport, the world No 5 and No 5 seed here.

"There's no question that those four players are right now at the very top of the game and the rest of us need to catch up or are trying to catch up," said Davenport after progressing to the third round in straight sets, 6-3, 6-1, past Rita Grande of Italy.

"For a while there I was one of those players that people were always trying to strive to get to. So for me it's a different situation. There's no question I'm going to have to get some big wins to back up there."

Davenport added that there was no way the women's singles this year can really be described as "open". She said: "I think that Serena is still a highly regarded favourite, especially on this surface. Serena's still the one to beat."

Davenport's win yesterday was comfortable, secured effectively with an eight-game winning sequence from 3-3 in the first set. But comfort is not something she has been used to in recent times after knee surgery last year, another knee injury last November and a more recent problem, an inflamed nerve in her left foot that will require surgery.

"There's not a lot you can do except give it Cortizone once or twice," she said. "Then once that wears off, you have surgery to sever the nerve." There was a brief pause for a smile. "I'm relishing that this year."

Nobody in the women's singles will relish playing any of the top four seeds, with Serena and Henin due to play their third-round matches today and Venus and Clijsters, who beat Virginie Razzano in straight sets yesterday, due to play tomorrow.

Joining them in the third round will be fellow seeds Chanda Rubin (No 7) and Natalie Dechy (No 22), but not Amanda Coetzer (No 17) or Magdalena Maleeva (No 12), eliminated by Francesca Shavione and Paola Suarez respectively.

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